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Short Sunlit Contrails Look Like UFOs

This is a remarkably common news story:  It’s just after sunset, someone looks towards the west and they see the short contrail of a jet plane illuminated by the sun.  It looks red, like fire.  They zoom in with their video camera.   They don’t know what it is, thinking it’s a fireball, a meteor, or some kind of UFO, so they alert the local media.  The local media published it, and occasionally the story grows.

Here’s one from Germany:

From a video that has since been removed.

The first thing to notice about this contrail is that it’s all the same color – glowing from the setting sun. Hence it’s not something on fire, it’s just a white contrail that is lit by the setting sun.

The next is that from the poor quality video it actually looks like multiple objects. But then if you zoom in you can see it’s just the plane is casting a shadow on the left contrail.

Then there’s the illusion that it’s dropping straight out of the sky. It’s actually flying in level flight, just directly over the top of the observer. This illusion is discussed in these two posts.


Here’s one from today (Dec 7th, 2010).

Raymond, 39, had been playing with his video recorder, and he got out of the apartment in time to capture whatever it was in the sky.

It looks like a double-barreled ball of fire falling toward earth.

Raymond contacted the AJC last weekend with his find and later loaned a reporter his videotape so the AJC could publish it here.

Here’s what it looks like:

Quite obviously a contrail from a distant jet, flying away from the camera, appearing to descend towards the horizon because of the distance and the curvature of the Earth.  What’s interesting about this video is that ten seconds later a new jet enters the frame:

It’s the exact same thing, probably even at a similar altitude.  However because it’s being viewed from the side instead of edge on, it looks longer, and so people think that’s a contrail, but the shorter one is not.  But that’s just perspective for you.  This is what people are seeing:

It’s the contrail of a jet, viewed from an angle, illuminated by the setting sun, viewed at very high magnification.


I see this a lot from Santa Monica.  Here’s a video I took of several similar contrails as they are being formed.  The video is sped up twenty times.

When you zoom in, it looks like some kind of fireball, but it’s just a plane.

Here’s another story from a while back:

Darlene Stewart said she was outside taking pictures of the sunset when she saw something fly overhead.

She snapped a picture of the object in an attempt to zoom in on it to see what it was.

“Even with the camera, I couldn’t make it out until I put it on the computer,” she told CBC News. “I knew then it wasn’t an airplane. It was something different.”

Stewart’s picture shows a blurry image of what appears to be some kind of missile-like object emitting either flames or heavy smoke.

And here’s the photo:

Again, it’s the same thing, but this time flying towards the camera, away from the sunset. The front part of the contrail is being shadowed by the rear part (like in the third photo above), making it seem like a large solid object.  The actual plane is too small in this image to be visible.

Like the missile launch story from last month, this kind of misidentification happens regularly, several times a year.  Here’s a video from a local news station in Hawaii, with contrail that someone said was a UFO:

It’s been going on for a long time, and it’s not going to stop.  Short sunlit contrails just look kind of odd. They looked odd in 1950, as reported by the San Mateo Times, Jan 12th, 1950:


See also:


39 thoughts on “Short Sunlit Contrails Look Like UFOs

  1. Loose end says:

    It sounds familiar. The next day after LA ‘mystery missile’, there was the following media report on the ‘UFO Mystery in the sky of New York’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26mjg-mK0tI

  2. TheFactsMatter says:

    “How could that be an optical illusion?! I see fire!” The woman claims. And again, it’s just a claim made by yet another person who hasn’t taken the time to learn about aviation and atmospheric science. She seems utterly STUNNED at the claim that it’s an “optical illusion”. I question the use of that term though. It’s not an illusion at all..I see exactly what I’m supposed to see and there is no spacial trickery. It’s obviously a contrail, and it’s obviously being illuminated by the sun. Just at the trail coming in from the right. I guess some could argue that it appears as though the plane is diving toward the earth. But my mind doesn’t see it that way.

    I love this type of story. It really does go a LONG way to showing that people aren’t as bright as we believe we are. None of us are! We are all ignorant about something…some more than others.

    Just another instance of “Vapor trails get many excited” as in the story above from 1950.

    I think that’s the term I’ll use from now on…these people are “excited” about the trails in the sky.

  3. TheFactsMatter says:

    What concerns me most about these stories is that these people never noticed the trails before it was brought to their attention, in stories like these! Don’t these people ever look UP as children?! Didn’t they notice the beautiful colors at sunset through their childhoods?! I remember being mesmerized by the setting sun illuminating layers of natural clouds and contrails off in the distance. Were people too busy playing video games and watching TV to notice these beautiful sunsets?! Or, the other possibility is that where they grew up didn’t have much air traffic. I just don’t get how so many can claim that these trails weren’t there for the last (almost) 100 years.

  4. Mr. Suntour says:


    I agree 100%, everything you’ve said is right on point. It’s really pretty sad that people (even after it’s explained to them) can’t comprehend the curvature of the Earth and the refraction of light which cause these contrails to light up in oranges and reds. They still feel the need to cling to their “my eyes don’t deceive me” naiveté.

    It saddens and even sickens me to think that as advanced as we are as a race, there are a large portion of us who still think the way we did back in the middle ages.

  5. Casual Observer says:

    Makes me wonder just how the heck they made it through any kind of science classes, lol!

  6. JFDee says:

    Speaking of science class, there is the case of the dead teenager in Boston, now believed to have dropped from the gear case of a jet airliner. He was obviously ignorant about the conditions in cruise altitude when he secretly climbed aboard.

    Either he missed the class when the atmosphere was discussed – or there was no such class.

  7. JFDee says:

    Hard to believe he would have done that stunt knowing the researched rate of survival is less than 50 percent.

    Darn, they even “reenacted” the stowaway procedure …

    And I can imagine someone fleeing desperately from poverty – even from, ahem, France … but … from Sydney? Or, in the present case, from Charlotte … to Boston?

    There must be more behind all that. It smells like a coverup. Seriously.

  8. I doubt it. Young stupid kids do crazy things.

  9. Mr. Suntour says:

    I was thinking the same thing Uncinus. I do not for a second doubt this guy thought “wait a minute, I can get a FREE plane ride?” and then just did it, not having the faintest idea what awaited him once in the air.

  10. TheFactsMatter says:

    There are a lot of things in video that look like UFOs. One guy on youtube swears that bugs that were seen at a roof line against a setting sun were nano-bots sent to his roof line to do who knows what…

    I’ve seen people get excited over obvious birds and insects whizzing by the lens of a camera…and don’t get me started about “orbs”. There are people who dedicate their lives to optical artifacts while they insist that they are “spirits”. I work with a guy that believes a picture of a deer he shot has the image of it’s “spirit” in an orb. He insists that it could be true. Anything “could be” true…but it’s what the evidence shows to be true that actually matters. Again, I can claim anything I want and the belief may be strong enough that I actually accept it as fact, but without a smoking gun, why wouldn’t one just accept the fact that they may not know as much about the subject as they thought?! People assume they are much more intelligent than they are, by default…..that they don’t need no stinkin’ book learning to know what they are witnessing…they can see it with their own eyes!

  11. JFDee says:

    Next time I will have to think about some tag. For now, every time I write “seriously” imagine me having my tongue almost penetrating my cheek …

  12. Boff's [widget] says:

    I’ve never paid much attention to the sky. I admit it. For me, the outdoors is what I have to pass through to get from a building to my car and vice versa. Even when I was in the Army more than 25 years ago, my attention was mostly directed to the things around me here at ground level. I did get to see a few spectacular displays of the aurora borealis while I was stationed in Alaska, as well as the occasional meteor streak there and in other places, but that was just a consequence of having to spend some time working outdoors at night now and then. And winter nights in Alaska are definitely long enough to provide ample opportunity to see some really cool stuff.

    Contrails? Sure, I’ve seen them ever since I was a kid, but I couldn’t tell you now how long any of them persisted. It just never occurred to me that it was anything that mattered.

    But a few weeks ago, when I arrived at work on a Friday afternoon, I paused when I got out of my car and looked up. And there in the sky were three or four magnificent persistent contrails, stretching from horizon to horizon. One of them was still being formed even though I couldn’t possibly see the plane, much too high and too far away, that was forming it. They were things of beauty, and I took a moment to appreciate them.

    A few hours later, I came back outside to move my car closer to the building, since I don’t like to go all the way across the street to get to it late at night when my shift is over. By this time it was between 5:00 and 5:30 and the sun was getting very low in the sky. The contrails I had seen upon arrival were still there, though much thinner and more spread out. I got a kick out of that. But what really made me smile was getting to see something I normally never do because I never think to look: six or eight new contrails being formed in the sky, all positively glowing in the light of the setting sun but otherwise having nothing in common, since all were coming and going in different directions, all were of different lengths, and all showed different degrees of persistence. One was coming almost straight in my direction, and perspective foreshortened it dramatically, so I tried to follow it for as long as I could. But that one was the least persistent of all; as I watched, it actually faded into nothingness so that I could no longer detect the location or direction of the plane that formed it. All together, they put on quite a show.

    As I stood there gazing at the sky in admiration, my boss stepped outside, took note of the most prominent remaining contrail rising out of the south, and asked “Is that some kind of launch?” And I answered “Nah, they’re just planes.”

    And I was able to do all those things because of this site.

    I don’t even remember how I discovered this site. I just know that it’s taken me more than six months to wade through all the articles and all the rivers of comments (which are often as entertaining and enlightening as the articles themselves). And now I’m finally caught up and can open my mouth confident that at least I won’t come across as a moron because I overlooked something.

    So consider this my “hello” and a thank you for two things: (1) helping me to understand and appreciate a corner of the world (one of a great many) to which I’ve never paid sufficient attention and (2) helping to remind me of what pseudoscience looks like.

    That second one is especially important to me because I’m a middle-aged guy who’s increasingly interested in health and nutrition, and I fully admit I’m vulnerable to the siren song of pseudoscience when it comes to those areas, which are all too often rife with it. Reading the comments here at Contrail Science has shown me that a lot of the folks who believe in “chemtrails” appear to share the same basic worldview with a lot of the folks involved in, or interested in, alternative medicine. So every time someone on an alternative health website goes on about “chemtrails” or “Big Pharma” or the “NWO” or the “PTB,” it reminds me of the importance of knowing why I believe what I believe. It helps keep me from going off the deep end.

    So thank you, Uncinus. Thank you for everything you’ve done and everything you do here. And thanks, too, to all the commenters here, because you’ve all helped, in one way or another, to expand my world.

  13. Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.

    And I appreciate your evocative description of a good contrail day. Sure contrails can make the day cloudier than it would have been, but there are times when a contrail can cut through a blue sky in quite an awesome manner – a reminder of just how far flight has come in the last hundred years.

  14. TheFactsMatter says:

    Well, I wasn’t quite sure where to post this tasty tid-bit…so i’ll post it here. It’s “UFO” related..

    “Researchers” have found out that HAARP is also a very powerful telescope…


    They’re coming for us! The chemicals in the atmosphere are put there to make our atmosphere more compatible for “them”. 2012 is the end of us all!!!

    Run away!

  15. TheFactsMatter says:

    Yeah right…now they’re just trying to cover it up so there won’t be mass panic!~

  16. MikeC says:

    Oddly enough there’s nothing on the SETI home page that comes close to this – the only mention of HAARP is in a film review of “The Core”.

    But you probably guessed as mush already just from the context of the post, right? 🙂

  17. Looker says:

    The S/N ratio on this site is astounding!

    Maybe you should check out project “Aurora” that was budgeted 20 years ago……strato bomber….Lockheed

    Time to fade…..

  18. MikeC says:

    I’m sure we are all familiar with the Aurora theory – I’d love to see something concrete about it, but alas, even 20 years has not been enough for anyone to find or reveal a single fact about it.

    But at least it is within the realms of the possible – the US does have a massive budget for “black” programmes, there are apparently “holes” in what is known about the budget for such programmes that an aircraft might fit, and there are some interesting possible sightings.

    That’s far more evidence than exists for the chemtrail hoax, but, as far as I can see, it isn’t really relevant to persistant contrails left by civil jetliners today.

  19. Alexey says:

    I think that the contrail on this photo is a very good match to the Berlin “UFO”.


  20. nick says:

    Wow. News stations sure hate the truth. They like a good story don’t they? Lets see the list they go through of what a sunset lit contrail might be.

    1. fireball
    2. UFO
    3. missile launch
    4. satellite
    5. government conspiracy
    6. unknown objects that needs research
    7. lens flare
    8. chemtrail
    9. contrail

  21. Nick says:

    I think you get paid to run this website to spread as much disinformation possible about this subject.

  22. Kamran says:

    I think you get paid by the chemtrailers to get people riled up so they’ll buy more merchandise.

    See, I can make unsupported accusations too.

  23. MikeC says:

    That’s not fair Kamran – part of your comment is based in fact – there IS a chemtrail industry that makes money!!

  24. Michael says:

    You are all brainwashed and being poisoned every day by the government because they want to kill everyone in their own country. I am kidding, I just wanted to say that. I would imagine that, even at its worst, a corrupt government would only want to kill/poison certain people in its own country, not absolutely everyone.

    I suppose that people believe in chemtrails because they really, really want to believe that the government is evil. Or perhaps it makes them feel significant, especially because they know something that we all don’t. Maybe it brings meaning to their lives, and for that I suppose chemtrails are a good thing. Definitely funny and entertaining.

  25. Michael says:

    Maybe they are spraying vitamins, or performance enhancing drugs that will make us all more productive citizens? They should spray drugs that prevent people from worrying about chemtrails.

  26. captfitch says:

    Shhh…. don’t give them any ideas.

    But seriously- I’ve always thought it would be interesting if there actually was some branch if the gov’t who is studying why certain people are more apt to generate theories like chemtrails.

  27. Ross Marsden says:

    This is an interesting read.
    “Challenging the politics of paranoia”
    Not sure how I came across it. Maybe from MetaBunk.

  28. Judy says:

    Michael says:

    “Maybe they are spraying vitamins, or performance enhancing drugs that will make us all more productive citizens? They should spray drugs that prevent people from worrying about chemtrails”

    Ha Ha, that made me smile. I’ve always figured that what our government really wants is for more people to buy more cheap plastic junk from Walmart. How would spraying poisons on us further that goal? Now if you told me they have been spraying something in the air in at Walmart that makes people want to buy more cheap plastic junk than they really need …. I may have to think about it some.

  29. Stupid says:

    ““Maybe they are spraying vitamins, or performance enhancing drugs that will make us all more productive citizens? ”

    It’s like a ‘glass-half-full’ mentality…..when seeing something they do not understand.
    Some will judge it as good.
    Some will judge it as bad.
    Some will focus on the exact middle of the glass, refusing to pass judgment.
    While others will examine the properties of the glass, and why the liquid and air – are even there at all.

  30. Alexey says:

    Looks like another sunlit contrail has made news today.

    Suspected meteor lights up Peru sky:

    Dark clouds near horizon seen at the end of this video strongly suggest that it has been taken at sunset:
    [img]https://contrailscience.com/wp-content/uploads/Screen shot 2011-08-26 at 21.28.43.png[/img]

  31. Yes, that one looks very obviously like a contrail. It’s not even vaguely suspicious. I suspect its just they don’t get that many contrails over Peru.

  32. JFDee says:

    Don’t know where else to post this.

    It’s a six minute fly-along besides a con-trailing 747 – during sunrise.
    It shows what the sun at a low angle can do to a trail.


    (Feel free to delete if this video is known/linked already)

  33. JFDee says:

    Addendum to previous post:

    Around 2:00 into the video, the reflected sun even creates the impression of something burning / rocket-like.

  34. Lovely video. Thanks!

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